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Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue in Petaluma eyes expansion to better serve black bears

Some 15 years ago, in a pouring Sonoma County rainstorm, Doris Duncan was called to retrieve an injured coyote, which laid motionless by the side of Meacham Road after being struck by a passing vehicle.

After a month of nursing the male coyote back to health, Duncan, who ran a wildlife rescue out of the Sebastopol Humane Society, trekked to the top of a hill overlooking the crash site in the rolling dairylands west of Cotati. She released the canid, and watched him vanish into the tall grasses of the valley below.

Duncan likened the scene to a balloon fading gently into the sky.

That sacred hill, the site of one of Duncan’s most memorable wildlife rescue moments, has been home to Duncan’s nonprofit Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue since May 2006. The site, owned by Sonoma County and leased to the rescue in exchange for wildlife services, was chosen purposefully. And now, 15 years later, Duncan’s team is setting out purposefully toward its most aspirational expansion yet – a sprawling apex predator enclosure featuring a $250,000 first phase that will allow the shelter to comfortably host and rehabilitate the state’s growing population of orphaned black bears.

On Sept. 20, as Duncan stood in dappled shade beneath a grove of eucalyptus, she spread her arms wide to demonstrate the extent of the space, with its sweeping views to the east and the faintest whisper of Highway 101 traffic.

“We’ll be able to take in more animals,” Duncan said. “That’s kind of my dream.”

Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, 403 Meacham Road, is a nonprofit animal rescue and rehabilitation organization. Established in 1981, the $1.2 million annual operation also conducts educational outreach, makes charitable donations and participates in animal advocacy work.

Since taking up residence at the top of the hill along Meacham Road, the facility has rehabilitated or served as the permanent home to coyotes, goats, chickens, wolves, skunks, mountain lions and more - as many as 150 animals at any one time. A year and a half ago, Duncan’s team became one of three rescue operations in the state licensed to rehabilitate black bears. Then things started moving quickly. A brother and sister pair of cubs orphaned in Siskiyou County during the Caldor fire were placed at the rescue a month ago. The shelter took possession of another black bear cub two weeks ago.

Now, as the shelter braces to house as many as four black bear cubs at the request of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Duncan has put out a call for community help to ensure the shelter can capitalize on plans to build a larger, apex predator enclosure for future efforts.

How to help

Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue is one of three licensed in the state to care for wild black bear cubs. Already home to three cubs, the shelter is also eyeing major fundraising goals for planned expansion efforts. The agency is seeking help with food, money, construction and advocacy. For more information, or to donate, go to scwildliferescue.org.

“Bear cubs arriving at the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue before the construction of this enclosure was not a reality that we had planned on,” Duncan said in a fundraising email sent two weeks ago. “However, these bears need our help. Today, we are reaching out to ask for your help with this effort.”

Plans for the first phase of the long-sought predator enclosure call for a 50-by-150-foot space, providing significantly more room than the current, temporary home of the bear cubs - a 50-by-25-foot pen surrounded by a chain-link fence. The organization has raised $90,000 toward the estimated $250,000 cost for the enclosure.

Megan Brown-Herrera, the hospital manager for Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, said that while the current enclosure meets minimum standards, the influx of admittedly cute bear cubs has sparked greater urgency for shelter officials to expand operations.

“With all of the fires, and with all of the orphaned bears, it’s really pushed us to want to create that quicker,” Brown-Herrera said. “It’s giving us ideas on what we need.”

The current space, meant for bobcats or coyotes, occupies a secluded section of the wildlife rescue property, helping to give the bears plenty of space to acclimate to their new, temporary home. Rescue staff have hung tree branches, buried fruits and worms and gifted massive sunflowers packed with nutritious seeds to the bears, all part of enrichment activities meant to help the curious cubs learn and grow.

On Sept. 20, Duncan gave the Argus-Courier a rare peek behind the scenes, where rehabilitating animals are kept behind screens, and human voices are kept to a hushed minimum in an effort to limit any habituation to people.

The bear cubs are eating about 25 pounds of food each day, gaining about 5 pounds per week and are giving staff members their first lessons in how to rescue and rehabilitate the highly intelligent creatures.

“Working with them, it’s new. They’re a different animal,” said Katie Woolery, the rescue’s assistant animal care director. “We’ve been trying to equate them to different species that we have worked with a lot. We’re calling them big, giant raccoons.”

Duncan said in a phone interview that the rescue, mindful of disturbing the cubs, which are about four to six months old, won’t commence building the larger enclosure until the animals are released next year.

With another bear likely coming to the shelter, though, Duncan said the rescue chose to break its silence to ensure the organization can fund expansion efforts and properly care for its animals.

“In the past month alone, it has become extremely clear how desperately this enclosure is needed. Destruction caused by California wildfires continue to present orphaned black bear cubs needing care at rehabilitation centers,” Duncan said in the release.

In her email, Duncan said the opportunity to rehabilitate the black bear cubs was a great privilege for the rescue, which continues to seek help with food, money, construction and advocacy.

Back at the site of the planned apex predator enclosure, Duncan sat on a felled eucalyptus log and talked with some trepidation about her plans for expansion. She has visited numerous rescues across the state, and is weighing every detail about the design specifications while also grappling with the daunting task of raising huge sums of cash for the project.

But there is no wavering in her commitment to go beyond the bare minimum for the bears this rescue hopes to serve. Duncan likens the cubs to a human toddler – smart, curious and easily bored.

“Imagine that she can only stay in her room, and never go in the rest of the house or never go in the backyard,” Duncan said. “These creatures are really smart. (With a bigger space,) there’s so much more we could do with enrichment for them.”

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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